Did autocells lead to life?


Convection caused by heating will generate a pattern of hexagons in a thin film of oil, showing that order can be brought to a system. Credit: Van Dyke 1982, An Album of Fluid Motion

The origin of life on Earth is still a hotly-debated topic. There are many different theories on how life was kick-started, as well as various experiments underway attempting to understand the processes involved. For example, a reverse engineering approach can be used by stripping away cells until the simplest possible system is left. However, evolution has ultimately hampered our understanding of life’s origins as it has washed away the traces of the first forms of life, making it impossible to retrace life’s early steps. This means that even the simple systems left after the reverse engineering approach are still too complicated to bear a resemblance to the first forms of life.

Life must have started simply; it couldn’t be created from a complicated group of molecules already working together. There had to a step prior to this in which these molecules themselves were created. Terrence Deacon, of the University of California Berkeley, outlined in a recent talk how this step could have taken place.

Life needs order – A tricky challenge that must be overcome before life can form is that order must be generated. However, this is not as simple as it sounds because the laws of physics state that things will naturally descend into a state of disorder. For example, a book placed precariously on the edge of a shelf will probably fall – thus creating disorder – but it is highly unlikely to create order by picking itself up again.

Order can still be created locally, even when the overall system tends to go towards disorder. Pushing heat through a system can organize it, for example a regular pattern of hexagons is created when a thin layer of oil is heated evenly to form Benard convection cells.

“If you heat something up and it gets regularized, what it’s doing is it’s getting rid of the heat as fast as possible,” Deacon explained. “So if you don’t keep pumping heat into the system, it’ll shut itself down. In fact, self-organizing systems destroy the conditions that enable them as fast as possible.”

Life can only be formed by generating order, but it has to do so in such a way that this order doesn’t degrade and that the system doesn’t ultimately destroy itself.

Read the rest here Did autocells lead to life?.

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